Military Outcry over Obama’s “Volunteer” Flub: Is the All-Volunteer Force All Volunteered Out?

Is Our Military's All-Volunteer Force All Volunteered Out?

Updated on 10/31 to include President Obama’s full response to the question about the military quarantine in response to commenter.

After watching the military spouse community’s reaction on social media to President Obama’s comments about why the Ebola quarantine rules for the military differ from the rules placed on volunteer heath care workers, I couldn’t help but think one thing.

Our military community is one giant exposed nerve.

Here’s what the President said (you can read the full transcript here):

Well, the military is a different situation, obviously, because they are, first of all, not treating patients. Second of all, they are not there voluntarily, it’s part of their mission that’s been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the Commander-in-Chief. So we don’t expect to have similar rules for our military as we do for civilians. They are already, by definition, if they’re in the military, under more circumscribed conditions.When we have volunteers who are taking time out from their families, from their loved ones and so forth, to go over there because they have a very particular expertise to tackle a very difficult job, we want to make sure that when they come back that we are prudent, that we are making sure that they are not at risk themselves or at risk of spreading the disease, but we don’t want to do things that aren’t based on science and best practices. Because if we do, then we’re just putting another barrier on somebody who’s already doing really important work on our behalf. And that’s not something that I think any of us should want to see happen…

Ouch. Right? How could our Commander-in-Chief ever say that our service members weren’t on the same playing field as “volunteers?” I mean, aren’t we an all-VOLUNTEER force?

Angie Drake did a fabulous job capturing the military community’s reaction to this comment over at the Daily Kos. She wrote:

I know on the one hand exactly what the President meant to say. He means that military members have no choice. They were sent without being asked for their permission. I get that. But he’s wrong when he says they didn’t volunteer.

In my opinion, President Obama’s comments weren’t outrageously out of the ballpark. I read them, re-read them and read them again. As Angie’s piece highlighted, we, as a community, the military community, got hooked on one word: volunteer.

Military spouses weren’t going to let this slide. Not when they keep having to say goodbye to their wives and husbands over and over and over again.

No wonder she and countless other military spouses are outraged over this topic.

But rather than flip out and cry foul on a thoughtless comment and scream, “Insensitive!” “We volunteer, too!” “But what about us?!”

What if we stop and acknowledge the fact that we’re done? Burned out. Nerves shot.

Do you hear that America? We’re tired.

Tired of seeing our spouses leave.

Tired of being scared we might never see them again.

Tired of watching each press conference with baited breath waiting to see how world events will dictate our day-to-day lives.

The thought that we’d have to spend even one more day apart from our serving spouse than necessary, especially when it isn’t “based on science and best practices” makes our defenses go up. Immediately.

The Growing Gap Between Those Who Serve and Those Who’d Rather Not

What concerns me most is the growing gap between those who serve and those who don’t, even when looking at something as straightforward as an Ebola quarantine.

Our non-military citizens might be asking themselves, “What’s the big fuss? What’s a few extra days for safety’s sake? Remember, you signed up for this.”

Our service members did volunteer. I get that. I’d like to think the President gets that, too. Whether or not America gets that is open for debate. But I know one thing- President Obama is wishing he could get a do-over on his comments because what he said definitely struck a nerve in the military community.

Volunteers or not, I don’t think that anyone could ever imagine that we’d see warfare on this scale for this length of time.  I don’t think that we thought that military intervention would be a long haul event. Precision strikes, clear mission, in and out…sure. Not this. And surely not layered over a horrid economic downturn. Plus Ebola.

At this point, our all-volunteer force is running out of volunteer spirit, because how in the hell did we think that we could keep recycling the same people to fight like this for this length of time without becoming somewhat bitter and tired? And then to watch their pay get put on the line despite the overuse and overabuse of our service members?

Is it truly fair that the 1% who serve and the families that support them continue to single-handedly shoulder the burden of securing freedom and, now, health and well-being, for the entire globe while the other 99% of America goes about their business as usual?

“Not my son.”

“Not my daughter.”

“Not me.”

“But thank you for your service.”

As our nation prepares to tackle ISIS, Ebola and whatever else comes our way, it’s time We the People had a talk about how we can bridge the gap between service to country and service to self: universal national service.

I know what you’re thinking. Not a draft. Not everyone is cut out for military service. Point taken. But regardless of how you feel about universal national service, I think we can all agree that we have to do something to get the entire nation on the same sheet of music when it comes to service and sacrifice.

There’s more than one way we can serve. Military service is just one. We have so many other needs within our own borders– health care, education, community service, infrastructure– that we can address as citizens of the United States of America under universal national service.

I’ll be honest, lately I feel like we’re just “the States;” there’s very little “united” about us. We have no shared sacrifices. No shared vision. No shared responsibility. It’s time to change that. It’s time to put the United back in the United States of America.



  1. National Service is not the answer. On principle, involuntary servitude is beneath the dignity of free people. It fundamentally reverses the relationship between the citizen and the state by assuming the citizen exists to serve the government and not the other way around. From a practical standpoint, it would be an absolute disaster. Based on the age group listed in the bill, we’re talking about employing more than ten million people in make work jobs that are so unimportant that no one is currently doing them. That would cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And does anyone seriously think that someone who was coerced into doing one of these jobs would produce quality results and develop the sense of unity and civic spirit suggested above? That sounds like a fantasy. The more likely result would be a costly and ineffective program that doesn’t even come close to realizing this imagined goal. The problem identified in this article is valid. The military is repeatedly deployed all over the world to solve problems that aren’t military in nature. The answer is a more sensible and restrained use of the military, not forcing tens of millions of americans to serve the government against their will.


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